“God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we’re family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.” –Desmond Tutu
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” –Robert Frost
Fort Worth — When Ellen Mahoney Crouse was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2014, she began a physical and emotional journey she compares to jumping on a moving train that never stops rolling. The “cancer train” might take her where she wanted to go—to healing and health—but it was a long, relentless ride.
Now Crouse is a survivor, playing herself on the Hip Pocket Theatre stage in Thrive, the season closer of HPT’s 42nd season. This sweet, sad, edge-of-tears tale, Crouse’s creatively imagined expansion of her personal memories of those days, is something you’re not likely to see anywhere but at Hip Pocket, which continues to move through a kind of theatrical life cycle—from the rowdy youthful adventures of its first seasons to its recent reflections on the riches and trials of older age. (Founder Johnny Simons’ A Fragile Dance of the Elders into the Great Beyond played earlier this season.)
And where would Crouse—who performed with HPT in its early years—bring her story but back home, to the theater family she knows best? Even short-run shows develop a family feel backstage; Hip Pocket grew first into a loosely organized repertory company putting on Simons’ antic, Texas-bred tales—and then, as tends to happen in a long-running company, became a theatrical home and family to generations who found their way to one rough-hewn HPT outpost or another around the edges of Fort Worth.
The show won’t be for everyone, but it’s hard not to see and be moved by the real tears in cast members’ eyes as they and Crouse move through the hardest moments of the play. At intermission and after, strangers and friends exchanged hugs, cancer stories, and memories of family who won or ultimately lost the battle.
And there were laughs too, at some out-there comic riffs (a kick line of yard-high breasts dancing on the balcony; a recitation of slang terms for “boobs”) that lighten the mood and reinforce the show’s theme that we’re all in this together, through tears, laughter, anger and joy…whatever it takes to thrive. The play is rough at the edges but has a nice way of balancing diverse emotional notes—and director JoAnn Gracey (another longtime HPT actor) handles the material with heart and humor.
The production is put together with Hip Pocket’s usual “puttin’ on a backyard show” flair. Allen Dean’s flexible set design has multiple levels to play with, and includes screens for shadow and projection work. (Crouse has collected pictures of her own past, and of famous women we’ve lost to breast cancer.) Nikki DeShea Smith’s lighting design can go from mystical spheres to fluorescent-lit clinic in a heartbeat, and Elysia Worcester’s costumes range from everyday duds to outfits for mice, shadow dancers and an other-worldly support circle. The Dancing Breasts and Mouse masks were made by Crouse, C Lee Gibson and Tricia Franks, and the spot-on lighting and sound onstage are the work of Ryan Riley, Louann Gary and Kenneth Mack.
Crouse, slim and fragile-looking with her cropped strawberry-blond hair, is a bright-eyed presence onstage, dancing to Frieda Austin’s gentle, flowing choreography (Austin’s “Me and My Shadow” with Crouse is light and poignant) or poring over the pages of her journal with us. She recalls doctors who didn’t want to break the news, and the “brave, honest, kind” radiologist (Lori Fox) who did. She brings us into her chemo circle, which became yet another kind of family for her during treatment. She remembers her loving husband (Paul Logsdon plays all the men, in fact) and his truly terrible cancer jokes. And she physically winces at the memory of having to tell her adult daughter (Jozy Camp)—“the hardest phone call” of both their lives.
The ensemble never stays put, changing roles (even species!) moment by moment. Logsdon leaps from one male role to another, playing doctors and techs, a bone-tired chemo patient feeling he’s on “10 per cent batteries,” and a pesky kibitzer interrupting the breast-slang list with male favorites—“bodacious tata’s” being the best/worst, according to your POV. Fox is gutsy and outspoken as a fellow chemo patient and funny as a Gauloise-puffing type who adds French terms to the list. Jozy Camp is vulnerable as Crouse’s heartsick daughter; and Kristi Ramos Toler pulls us in as a grandma (in the chemo group) laughing about the name of the newest little one—and hoping to live to know her.
Thrive’s well-chosen soundscape (musicians and songwriters are credited and thanked for permissions in the program, a nice touch) adds to the emotional spectrum. There’s everything here from old pop tunes (“Ain’t She Sweet?” and “Me and My Shadow”) to ethereal riffs by Iceland’s Sigur Rós and folk-tinged tunes from The Wailin’ Jennys (“Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While”).
The song list, in a particularly evocative move, also includes “Please Let the Sun Come Up Again,” written—and plaintively sung—by Hip Pocket co-founder and longtime musical guru Douglas Balentine, who died in 2008.
It’s good to hear his voice again—he’s part of this family too.
Thrive, like a lot of North Texas events, was rained out its first weekend and part of the second. It runs through Oct. 28.